May 12, 2018

Gaudete et exsultate: Catholics Online

Christians too can be caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet and the various forums of digital communication. Even in Catholic media, limits can be overstepped, defamation and slander can become commonplace, and all ethical standards and respect for the good name of others can be abandoned. The result is a dangerous dichotomy, since things can be said there that would be unacceptable in public discourse, and people look to compensate for their own discontent by lashing out at others. It is striking that at times, in claiming to uphold the other commandments, they completely ignore the eighth, which forbids bearing false witness or lying, and ruthlessly vilify others. Here we see how the unguarded tongue, set on fire by hell, sets all things ablaze (cf. Jas 3:6). (115)
I quote that section of James often enough with penitents; the tongue is a small organ but it gets us in all kinds of big trouble.

I first came online back in 1993 when I was a senior in college. Before long I discovered the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and its Catholic channels, as well as a Catholic listserv for which I promptly signed up. I was very innocent in those days, having been a Catholic for only about a year and with most of my knowledge of the Church having come from books, and I wasn't sure what to make of what I found, which was a lot of arguing and fighting. That's not to say that I didn't jump in myself when I knew that I was right about something ... because I had looked it up, thank you very much. I still have some of that attitude in me and it continues to get me in trouble. (More on that in the planned final post on Gaudete et exsultate, tentatively titled 'examination of conscience.')

So I think there's something to this admonition from Pope Francis. The immediacy of electronic communication can make it easy to say things without thinking. I think of the salutary warning in Father Z's comment section: Think BEFORE posting! Proof read. The option for anonymity can also bring temptations to be less responsible and charitable. When a discussion or argument gets to have more heat than light, there is the danger that positions will harden into polarities and nuances will be lost. If the platform itself does not lend itself to the presentation of deep and complex positions--I'm thinking here of Twitter, of course--these pitfalls are that much more present.

I'm not saying that apologetics and even polemic don't have a place on the web. These are charisms that have always been with the Church and have produced saints. So if someone has received these gifts for use in the online world, so be it. But there are some dangers to keep in mind.

One danger is forgetting to keep in mind that the devil is very attentive to anyone who is righteously angry or indignant, in order to take any opportunity to nourish disdain or hate for the enemy of the faith or of sound tradition who is being addressed. And the devil is quite happy (in the sense that one can speak of the devil's 'happiness,' given that he is supremely unhappy) to encourage anyone in being righteous or correct so long as one is righteous or correct so as to hate the person who isn't. Jesus Christ dies out of love for the unrighteous, and we must love them too if we want to call ourselves Christ-ians. As Jesus put it at the Last Supper,

"This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

Another danger is scandalizing and confusing the world. If those outside the faith only see Christians fighting and being unable to agree on anything, how will they think the faith is anything solid? We like to accuse the world and its 'dictatorship of relativism' of the absurdity of denying absolute truth and point out the dangers and inhumanities this is leading us into, but how does this commitment to truth make sense if Christians don't seem to able to agree on anything? For better or for worse, being a Catholic online makes someone an ambassador for the faith in a way that was not available before the technology we have now. As we know from Uncle Ben (Parker), with great power comes great responsibility. And as Jesus assures us, someone who knows his master's will but fails to do it becomes ineligible for the lighter beating. (Luke 12:47-48) So let all of us Catholics online examine our consciences from time to time regarding our life on the web.

In this, as well as with regard to internet use generally, I often think of Thomas Merton's admonition about television:
I am certainly no judge of television, since I have never watched it. All I know is that there is a sufficiently general agreement, among men whose judgment I respect, that commercial television is degraded, meretricious and absurd. Certainly it would seem that TV could become a kind of unnatural surrogate for contemplation: a completely inert subjection to vulgar images, a descent to a sub-natural passivity rather than an ascent to a supremely active passivity in understanding and love. It would seem that television should be used with extreme care and discrimination by anyone who might hope to take interior life seriously. (New Seeds of Contemplation, 86.)
Now that's from the early days of television, which is certainly far more vulgar now than it was then. And how much stronger the same warning could go for the internet. All of us could use a little less subjection to screens and more of the creative surrender of contemplation.

May 9, 2018

Gaudete et exsultate: Little Choices

This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures. Here is an example: a woman goes shopping, she meets a neighbor and they begin to speak, and the gossip starts. But she says in her heart: “No, I will not speak badly of anyone”. This is a step forward in holiness. Later, at home, one of her children wants to talk to her about his hopes and dreams, and even though she is tired, she sits down and listens with patience and love. That is another sacrifice that brings holiness. Later she experiences some anxiety, but recalling the love of the Virgin Mary, she takes her rosary and prays with faith. Yet another path of holiness. Later still, she goes out onto the street, encounters a poor person and stops to say a kind word to him. One more step. (16)
Just as theology is the queen of the sciences, which are only complete and reach their full flourishing under its light, so holiness is the first form of health within which all other well-being finds its rightful place and fullness.

And just as our bodily health is preserved and nourished by little, everyday choices, so it is with holiness. As Pope Francis points out, it is these small options for a turn to prayer, for charity, and especially for being willing to suffer for the good of another, that set us on the path towards being the saints God wills and delights for us to become.

April 21, 2018

Gaudete et exsultate: The Real History of the World

Pope Francis exhorts us, with the help of Edith Stein:
Let us be spurred on by the signs of holiness that the Lord shows us through the humblest members of that people which “shares also in Christ’s prophetic office, spreading abroad a living witness to him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity”. We should consider the fact that, as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross suggests, real history is made by so many of them. As she writes: “The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity step forth out of the darkest night. But for the most part, the formative stream of the mystical life remains invisible. Certainly the most decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions. And we will only find out about those souls to whom we owe the decisive turning points in our personal lives on the day when all that is hidden is revealed” (8)
This reminded me of something from Thomas Merton:
I wonder if there are twenty men alive in the world now who see things as they really are. That would mean that there were twenty men who were free, who were not dominated or even influenced by any attachment to any created thing or to their own selves or to any gift of God, even to the highest, the most supernaturally pure of His graces. I don't believe that there are twenty such men alive in the world. But there must be one or two. They are the ones who are holding everything together and keeping the universe from falling apart. (from "Detachment" in New Seeds of Contemplation)
One of the gifts of priesthood for me has been the opportunity to meet, usually in confession, some of these hidden saints. It is they, not the robbers writ large that one sees each day in the news, who are the protagonists of the true history of the world, which is the creation's pilgrimage toward full transfiguration in the Risen Christ.

April 20, 2018

Gaudete et exsultate: Community

I took some time to read Gaudete et exsultate. Anything I would say about it generally has already been posted here and there, so there's no need for me to repeat it. I do have some personal reflections to share, however, on this exhortation to holiness. This is the first.
In salvation history, the Lord saved one people. We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual. Rather, God draws us to himself, taking into account the complex fabric of interpersonal relationships present in a human community. God wanted to enter into the life and history of a people. (6)
In religious life it's a commonplace to say that the reasons you entered are not the same reasons you have stayed. In the same way, what you anticipated as being the greatest challenges don't turn out to be the things you struggle with the most. Conversely, what seemed like an easy thing when you first professed can become a great struggle. I am sure that those who are married or in any other sort of particular vocation have analogous experiences.

When I made my religious profession, I had not thought much about the line, Therefore, I entrust myself with all my heart to this brotherhood. As time has gone on, however, I realize that this is one of the most challenging aspects of the whole business.

April 1, 2018

The Easter Itinerancy

(An old post updated)

Every year on this holy night I reflect on the grace of itinerancy that the Holy Spirit has given me; only twice in my whole baptism have I been in the same place for the Easter Vigil for more than two years in a row. When I think about the places I've been for the Vigil, it puts me in awe of God and in a state of gratitude for my journey.

March 9, 2018

Retreat Report

This afternoon we have returned home from our annual community retreat. It was held, as has been usual in time my time here, at our house in Frascati in the hills outside Rome.

Ah Rome. She's pretty from a distance, no?

For me the grace of the retreat was to pause and take a look at my life and vocation at this particular moment, especially in light of some changes in the recent past (e.g. loss of a spiritual director) and looking forward to changes that are on the way (e.g. the General Chapter this summer). My prayer was mostly about who I am at this point and the discernment of what God desires for me going forward.

For the days of retreat, I found myself most of the time in one of two places. The first was the Capuchin church adjacent to the friary:

San Francesco d'Assisi, Frascati. Consecrated 1579.

There I prayed, reflected on things, and sometimes just sat with the Lord. It was cold enough in there that even I wanted a sweatshirt, so there wasn't much danger of any other friar interrupting my solitude!

My other spot was in the friary rec room, where I read, journaled, and tended the fireplace in the later afternoons.


What a rich source of metaphor for the spiritual life! Long-time followers of this blog will remember my sufferings during a period of my religious life when I gathered with confreres to pray around a fake fireplace (supplied with real tools; 'Lord, close my lips' must be my prayer about that), despite the fact that the Blessed Sacrament was reserved in a number of nearby places.

During the retreat I finished Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation by Fr. Martin Laird, O.S.A., which had been recommended to me by a confrere, and I read most of Cardinal Sarah's The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, which is a prayerful, beautiful book. I recommend it.

February 12, 2018

The Penitent Who Hates The Pope

A pastoral issue came up during table talk among the friars recently: what to do for a penitent who comes to confession and says he hates Pope Francis.

For my part I don't think this has ever happened to me. Back when I was assigned to pastoral ministry, which was during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, I don't remember anyone ever confessing hatred for him either. Perhaps there was less overlap between the faithful afflicted with hatred for Pope Benedict XVI and the faithful who go to confession. But that question goes with another topic.

The question stuck with me and I gave it some thought.